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Stripper, robber, Hustler: why Cardi B's unapologetic life is wilder than any movie

Cardi B as Diamond in Hustlers
Cardi B as Diamond in Hustlers Credit: Barbara Nitke

Before Cardi B was a history-making, chart-topping, Grammy-winning rapper, she was a stripper. It’s a fact that is entrenched in her late-capitalist legend.

The issues that dominate her lyrics: her relentless hustle, street smarts and fixation on money – both as a necessity and as a luxury – are reflected by her stripping years.

And it’s stripping that has been at the heart of her most damaging controversies, where the crowd-pleasing, dubious strand of third-wave feminism of her former career merged with indisputable criminality.

All of which has made her one of pop culture’s most contradictory and fascinating figures, a woman who is both politically socialist (based, at least, on her public support for Bernie Sanders) as well as openly fuelled by money and wealth. 

Born Belcalis Marlenis Almánzar and raised in the Bronx, Cardi is a woman who has struggled through and prospered over a broken system, even while breaking the law to do so. She is complex and polarising, so it’s appropriate that this week sees her make her cinematic debut in a movie driven by many of the same themes. As if it couldn’t have more in common with her, it’s even called Hustlers.

Cardi B last September Credit:  Charles Sykes

Inspired by a brilliantly salacious New York magazine article called The Hustlers at Scores by Jessica Pressler, the film follows the fortunes of Manhattan strippers who largely catered to Wall Street bankers and executives.

In the wake of the 2008 financial crash, and finding themselves with declining earnings, the women began a dangerous side hustle that involved seducing their elite clients with suggestions of sex and private parties before drugging them with a combination of MDMA and ketamine and running up enormous bills on their credit cards.

An already Oscar-tipped (really!) Jennifer Lopez plays Ramona, the gang’s ringleader, with Constance Wu the newcomer she takes under her wing. Keke Palmer and Lili Reinhart play two of her most lucrative “girls”. Cardi B cameos as Diamond, a stripper who offers tips to Wu’s character on how to drain as much cash as possible from her clients.

Cardi’s involvement in the film represents something of a full-circle moment. A rapper whose lightning-fast cultural ascendance could only have happened in the age of Twitter and Instagram, Cardi had reached the top of the Billboard charts with her debut single in 2017, just two years after she broke out on the reality series Love & Hip Hop: New York.

Cardi retired from stripping in 2016, after realising she could make a greater living from her thriving career on Instagram, where her outspoken, gleefully vulgar videos about sex, money and relationships had earned her a cult following.

Stripping was, as Cardi has always told it, the making of her. She started when she was 18, after struggling on the $200 weekly salary from working at a Manhattan deli and realising that dancers were earning incredible amounts of money for far less work. And there, having recently fled a controlling relationship and suddenly surrounded by a makeshift family of supportive women, Cardi found herself.

“A lot of women here, they taught me to be more powerful,” she told CBS News (via Billboard) in 2018, while revisiting her old stomping ground of Club Lust in Brooklyn.

“I did gain a passion and love [for] performing. It made me feel pretty... I’m glad for this chapter in my life. I don’t ever regret it, because I learned a lot. I feel like it matured me. My biggest ambition was money. That’s what these women put in my head: nothing is important but the money.”

That stripping was such a significant part of Cardi’s biography made her involvement in Hustlers something of an inevitability.

“Cardi’s name was always in the mix,” casting director Gayle Keller told Vulture last week. “[Director] Lorene Scarafia said, ‘How can you write a movie about strippers and not put Cardi B in it?’”

“I chased Cardi for two years,” Scafaria previously told the magazine, explaining that she resorted to sending her a direct message on Instagram in order to get hold of her. That led to a phone number, which Scafaria texted, only to receive a response that read: “We’ll get back to you”. She confessed that she still didn’t know whether the number belonged to Cardi or not, but that Cardi ended up in the film anyway.

Within days of Cardi’s casting in Hustlers being announced, fact and fiction grew even more blurred. An Instagram Live video, that had been unearthed from several years earlier, showed Cardi confessing to her followers that she had been involved in drugging and robbing men while working as a stripper, taking men who assumed she would sell sex back to hotels and proceeding to steal from them.

The video saw her defend herself against an Instagram user’s claim that she hadn’t earned her success, Cardi insisting: “[People] must have forgotten the s--- that I did to... survive. I had to go strip. I had to go, ‘Oh yeah, you want to f--- me? Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah, let’s go to this hotel,’ and I’d drug n----s up and I’d rob them. That’s what I used to do! Nothing was motherf------ handed to me.”

The video lit a fuse on social media. Much of the outrage was unsympathetic, driven by false equivalencies and men crying sexism at their expense. Ugly comparisons were conjured by the then-recent release of Surviving R Kelly, a  then-recent docuseries that saw several women accuse the singer of rape and molestation (Kelly has denied all claims).

A hashtag, #SurvivingCardiB, proliferated and attempted to argue that Cardi’s admitted behaviour was somehow comparable to famous men who had been accused of rape. Several viral tweets similarly contrasted the media’s reactions to her confession with that of the allegations made against Bill Cosby, as if the two cases were at all similar.

There was also the underlying misogyny that while Cardi was condemned for criminal actions, male rappers have historically been celebrated for theirs. That Jay-Z sold crack cocaine as a teenager in Brooklyn has long been a significant part of the star’s mythology.

Similarly, Snoop Dogg’s one-time murder charge and 50 Cent’s history with dealing guns and drugs have folded into theirs. Cardi, however, was made to feel immediate shame.

Within days of the video’s surfacing, Cardi released a statement. “I never claim to be perfect or come from a perfect world with a perfect past, I always speak my truth,” she wrote on Twitter.

“I never glorified the things I brought up in that life. I never even put those things in my music because I’m not proud of it and feel a responsibility not to glorify it. I made the choices that I did at the time because I had very limited options.”

She added: “I was blessed to have been able to rise from that but so many women have not. Whether or not they were poor choices at the time I did what I had to do to survive.”

Frustratingly, the ambiguous nature of Cardi’s claims made it easier for critics to condemn her, and harder for her supporters to argue that her actions were acceptable. While the identities of the men remain unknown, as do the nature of the incidents themselves, Cardi said, still somewhat ambiguously, that the men were individuals “that I dated, that I was involve[d] with, men that were conscious, willing and aware”.

Hustlers, which pits beautiful and desperate women against sleazy Wall Street types, is less morally ambiguous by nature of its framing. The gang at Scores defined their criminality as a kind of wealth redistribution, stealing from rich men who had used their own form of so-called “white collar” duplicity to earn their riches in the first place.

In Hustlers with Constance Wu

Cardi’s actions are hazier. She participated in criminal activity, however you attempt to dress it up. But condemning her entirely would be to feign ignorance of an ugly societal truth – that we’re all more or less complicit in a system that is ultimately harming or exploiting someone with less money or fortune.

And when one of the people on that end of it decides to turn the tables, tired of facing the daily outcome and unable to dismiss or ignore it with as much ease as we can, it is difficult to blame them. Especially when so many of the women in Cardi’s prior profession are demeaned, abused and treated like bought-and-paid-for product at the mercy of the men throwing money their way.

Cardi, to her credit, has expressed regret, admitting to the immorality of her actions and explaining that she has never used her criminal past to achieve a certain level of rap-industry credibility. Giving weight to it is the fact that, despite her presence on the Hustlers publicity circuit, she hasn’t spoken of the more specific similarities between her past and the film’s premise.

Instead she has continued to speak of the women still dancing, still attempting to make ends meet and creating their own support networks in clubs across the United States, and how her incredible trajectory is an atypical one. Further to her credit, she has always refused to feel shame for what she used to do for a living.

Speaking to Cosmopolitan last year, Cardi explained: “People say, ‘Why do you always got to say that you used to be a stripper? We get it.’ Because y’all don’t respect me because of it, and y’all going to respect these strippers from now on.”